A tribute to a peripatetic writer: Tony Horwitz’s last book, ‘Spying on the South,’ is a wonderful but bittersweet read

  • Journalist and bestselling author Tony Horwtiz, who died unexpectedly in late May, was an advocate of participatory journalism who went “where a less intrepid reporter would not,” as one reviewer put it. He lived on Martha’s Vineyard.

  • Horwitz’s third book, 1998’s “Confederates in the Attic,” became a bestseller and set the tone for his unique blend of journalism, history, travelogue and humor.

  • The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, seen here in his early 70s, was inspired by his travels in the South in the 1850s to create public parks for all classes of people. Image from 1903 book “The World’s Work”/Wikipedia/public domain

  • In Horwitz’s last book, “Spying on the South,” the late author contrasts the division between North and South over slavery in the 1850s with the political divisions of today.

  • The Texas Hill Country west of Austin, the state capitol, where Horwitz took an ill-fated and comic mule trip as part of “Spying in the South.” Photo by CMBJ/Wikipedia Commons

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 20, 2019

When the writer and journalist Tony Horwitz died suddenly in late May, it felt like a punch to the gut. I had never met Horwitz  or corresponded with him, but I’d read almost all of his books and counted them among the most enjoyable nonfiction I’d ever come across. He was a most companionable narrator; it almost seemed like I’d lost a friend.

I also greatly admired Horwitz as a fellow (if much more accomplished) journalist. He’d covered wars in the Mideast and the former Yugoslavia and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his reporting, for The Wall Street Journal, on the dangerous conditions in many low-wage jobs in the U.S. And his books were great examples of participatory journalism, full of humor and rich portraits of the sometimes eccentric people he met, such as the hardcore Civil War reenactors he marched with and wrote about in his 1998 New York Times bestseller, “Confederates in the Attic.”

Horwitz, who lived on Martha’s Vineyard with his Pulitzer Prize winning wife, historical novelist Geraldine Brooks (his mother, the writer Elinor Lander Horwitz, is a Smith College graduate), also impressed me with his enthusiasm for history, one of my interests as well. In books such as “Blue Latitudes,” in which he retraced the 18th-century voyages in the Pacific of the English explorer James Cook, Horwitz created a distinctive mix of journalism, history and travelogue that read like a dream and was also highly informative.

And though I’m hardly an expert on the abolitionist John Brown, Horwitz’s “Midnight Rising,” a straight history he wrote on the raid Brown led against the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859 in hopes of sparking a slave rebellion in the South, seemed like a very solid piece of work.

Horwitz’s sudden death at age 60 on May 27, of cardiac arrest while he was in Maryland, came in the midst of a publicity tour for his excellent new book, “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide.” Like his other work, this last one is a testament to Horwitz’s ability to talk to seemingly anyone; he had a generous as well as adventurous spirit, a willingness to reach across political and social lines and listen to people on their own terms.

As Roy Blount Jr. wrote in a front-page New York Times Book Review of “Confederates in the Attic” in 1998, “Horwitz wears himself lightly, and is extraordinarily good at drawing out strangers. Cheerfully energetic, he goes where a less intrepid reporter would not.” 

Horwitz puts those skills to work again in “Spying on the South,” which is something of a bookend to “Confederates in the Attic.” In the earlier book, he set out to discover why so many Southerners still seemed obsessed with the Civil War, and how the war has continued to shadow modern conflicts over race, historical memory and government’s reach.

In the new title, Horwitz examines the run-up to the Civil War by retracing the steps of Frederick Law Olmsted, who before becoming one of the most famous landscape architects in history served as an undercover correspondent, in the early 1850s, for the New-York Daily News — the forerunner of The New York Times — making two months-long trips through the South and using the pen name “Yeoman Olmsted” in his dispatches. His assignment was to make a broad sketch of the South for Northern readers and write about people’s attitudes as the U.S. grew ever-more divided over the issue of slavery.

As Horwitz notes, Olmsted began his travels as an opponent of slavery, but one willing to see gradual emancipation. His experience in the South, however, hardened his antislavery beliefs, and he also recoiled at the attitude of wealthy Southerners, who seemed “almost feudal” in their insistence on slavery and their disdain for the rough and tumble democracy of the North.

In describing his decision to retrace some of Olmsted’s travels, Horwitz noted that though no single issue today matched the explosiveness of slavery, “there were inescapable echoes of the 1850s: extreme polarization, racial strife, demonization of the other side, embrace of inflamed opinion over reasoned dialogue and debate.”

An epic trip

The contrast between the South Olmsted toured and the one Horwitz moves through — he did much of his reporting in the years just before the 2016 elections, when partisan tensions were rising — makes for some great “then and now” comparisons, from both a physical as well as social sense. Some of the changes aren’t good. Early in his tour he arrives in Grafton, West Virginia, a once-thriving rail center now hollowed out by job losses in coal mining and other industries — and by drug addiction.

It’s Halloween, a Friday, and Horwitz is perplexed not to see children trick-or-treating. That happened last night, a local tells him: “Parents didn’t want their kids out on a Friday with all the drunks and meth-heads partying it up.”

Not surprisingly, the industrial age has transformed significant chunks of the rural and frontier landscapes Olmsted surveyed by boat, rail, stagecoach and on horseback. No changes may be more dramatic than those in the eastern and southeastern part of Texas. Outside Beaumont, an old oil patch now resembles a World War One battlefield, Horwitz writes: “There were trenches and berms, muddy pits that looked like shell craters, shattered pipes and other shrapnel, and miles of ground torn up and denuded of trees.”

And within the industrial/suburban sprawl of Houston, Horwitz visits San Jacinto, site of an historic 1836 battle between Texans and Mexican army forces that now lies “amidst a petrochemical Mordor … [of] smokestack plumes … flaring refineries and storage tanks weirdly adorned with murals of 1830s horsemen waving muskets and sabers.”

More troubling, 150 years since the end of slavery, is what seems to be, at best, a strained détente between most whites and blacks. Towns and cities, with a few exceptions, are segregated by race and seem slated to stay that way. One black man in Greenville, Mississippi, who does have some white neighbors, says “They’re fine; we wave, make nice, and that’s it. We still don’t know each other.”

A white Texas oil worker, who drives a pickup emblazoned with a Confederate flag, is more blunt: “My problem with blacks is, don’t make me do something because you want to do it. MLK Day? Fine. You celebrate it, but why should I have to?” In a cafe in a small town in East Texas, where he sits in with some local white Republicans talking politics, Horwitz is appalled to hear some of them casually spout racial slurs, including a reference to former president Barack Obama.

And when he tours some old antebellum plantation mansions as part of a paddle boat cruise down the Mississippi River, the author listens as hoop-skirted docents awkwardly tiptoe around the issue of slavery, referring to the black “servants” who they say were an important part of the white families that once lived there. “They can’t even mouth the S-word,” one of Horwitz’s fellow tourists fumes. 

But true to his nature, Horwitz finds ways to bond with many of the people he meets, often by hanging out in local bars, and to tell their stories; he’s touched by the generosity many people show him even when they sense he doesn’t share their political beliefs.

To recreate Olmsted’s trip down part of the Ohio River along the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, he hitches a ride on a large boat pushing a string of coal barges to power plants on the waterway. Crew members at first don’t seem too thrilled to have this Yankee interloper on board, but after several days they’ve warmed to him, enough to suggest a few titles for his book, like “Rednecks on the River” and “White Trash on the Water.”

“Spying on the South” is also buoyed by Horwitz’s comic foil, Andrew Denton, an acquaintance he describes as “an Australian Jon Stewart” who joins him for part of his trip and contributes a string of great riffs on his impressions of the South. At one point the two grow weary of the grub they find in most small eateries — greasy meat and fried fish often smothered in gravy — and opt for some fast food. Says Andrew: “It’s a worry when McDonald’s is your healthy meal of the day.”

(As an aside, I was left wondering how much the fatty food Horwitz ingested, and all the booze he drank, on his Southern jaunt contributed to his untimely death. In fact, in late April, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times describing the barstool reporting he did for his book, and the first line of the article was “Last week I saw my cardiologist. He told me I drink too much.”)

Quoting widely from Olmsted’s dispatches and diary, Horwitz also teases out some little-known stories about the South, like a small community of “Free Thinkers,” German immigrants in what’s now known as the Texas Hill Country west of Austin, the state capitol, who settled in the area in the 1840s and 1850s and came to oppose slavery. Many were later jailed and even executed by Confederate troops when they refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy.

On a more pleasant note, the author finds the Hill Country, a place Olmsted delighted in, still quite picturesque, and he hires a wrangler to lead him on a mule trip through part of it, leading to some comic (and not so comic) moments as he grapples with an ornery mule and the even-more ornery wrangler.

For all his bonhomie, Horwitz ends his book on something of a down note, walking alone through New York’s Central Park (likely Olmsted’s most famous creation as a landscape architect) and brooding about the political and racial divisions he’d encountered. As one beleaguered Democrat in East Texas, a Republican stronghold, tells him, “It’s like we’re on different islands, only ours is much smaller. The divide is so wide I don’t see anything that will bridge it.”

Still, Horwitz notes that Olmsted’s trips through the South later motivated him to build public parks as a means of making the North more democratic, creating places all people could visit regardless of economic status. Those places endure, Horwitz notes, and they still offer “a sense of enlarged freedom,” as Olmsted once wrote.

And the author reflects on how his travels renewed the sense of wonder he’d often felt “at the diversity and capaciousness of America.” That seems a fitting epitaph for a talented, open-hearted writer and storyteller who left us too soon. R.I.P., Tony.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.